The Continued Success of Country Club of Detroit
The Back Story
Everyone likes a success story. Some are about new ideas that flourish, others are about perpetuating a well-branded concern, but there is no better tale than a turnaround. They are difficult to find and harder to pull off. That is what makes what has transpired at The Country Club of Detroit (CCD) over the last seven years so impressive. Through the combination of visionary leaders willing to be catalysts for change, generating member confidence to invest in the facilities and excellent execution by management, this wonderful club has emerged from the challenging economic environment of Southeast Michigan and a bit of stodginess of its own doing to once again become one of the premier country clubs in the United States.
Let’s go back to 2012, as painful as that might be. The country is only beginning to emerge from the financial meltdown, but the automotive-heavy Detroit Metro economy continues to lag the broader national experience. Despite significant efforts to recruit new members and improve the membership experience, CCD had replaced only 50% of the members who resigned in the prior 5 years. Older members spending more time in Florida were downgrading or resigning and the young people in the community were not stepping in to replace them.
Fast-forward to 2019, and we find CCD with a full golf membership, revenue will top $13 million this year – 50% above 2012 – making it the third highest grossing club in the State behind only larger, legendary clubs like Detroit Athletic Club and Oakland Hills. The membership is larger, younger and more engaged than ever.
How Did It Happen?
• Visionary Volunteers: The board spent several months studying the trends in society and the local environment to understand what was happening and gain clarity about what needed to be done to create a relevant membership experience. This was important not only for their own edification, but to also communicate their vision to the membership. This was essential for building member confidence and enrolling them in the extended mission.
• Excellence in Management: The leadership recruited Craig Cutler, CCM to lead the operating team and direct the building program. Craig had been a key part of Ted Gillary’s team in the earlier turnaround of the Detroit Athletic Club, another fantastic story. He understood the importance of building special facilities, empowering the department leaders and personalizing the member experience.
• Capital Creates Change: The leadership and management made a compelling case to the members about the importance of investing in the club to improve their experience and attract new members. They laid out a multi-phase plan that began to turn the flywheel of enhancements generating members and revenue leading to more investments.
• The Customer (and prospective member) is Sovereign: Throughout its down time, CCD was always a fine club. It had an excellent, well-conditioned golf, a classic English Tudor clubhouse, and a membership comprised of ladies and gentlemen. The club hadn’t varied materially from its roots, but the market had shifted dramatically. The conventional wisdom within the club was that there were not enough young people in the community with the means or interest to join a club. The true story was that the prospects were there, but they wanted a broader, family oriented experience.
• Defense Doesn’t Work: Sports analogies are overplayed, I know, but how often have we seen a team up early in a game try to sit on a lead lose? You win games and the battle for market share in the club world by pressing ahead, by competing smart and effectively, by trying to win. There is no cutting to prosperity.
• Build it and They Will Come: Unfortunately, this misquoted line (in the movie it was “build it and he will come”) is now used to denigrate business plans where risk exists and potential unpredictable (aren’t they all). Club leaders should replace it with Invest to Grow, which is what any smart business does when its current product isn’t selling.
Congratulations to the membership and management at CCD for restoring their wonderful club to its rightful position. It is an inspirational and instructive story.
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About Frank Vain
Mr. Vain provides consulting and planning services to private clubs throughout North America. Through use of specialized services including membership surveys, strategic planning, operational analysis and facility long range planning, Frank assists club in developing individualized strategies for their unique situations.
Mr. Vain joined McMahon Group in 1988 and has more than forty years of experience in the management and development of hospitality properties including country clubs, city athletic and dining clubs and residential communities. Frank is Past President of The Country Club of St. Albans, a 36-hole country club located in Missouri, and he is a former partner in Concord Sports Club, a 1,700 member family athletic club in St. Louis. Frank was elected to the Board of the National Club Association in 2011 and served as Chairman in 2019-20.
Mr. Vain is a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is a featured speaker at the annual Club Managers Association of America World Conference, National Club Association National and Regional Conferences, Major Golf Associations and a regional chapter meeting of club managers and leaders.
Frank is a regular contributor to industry leading publications like Club Management, Club Director and BoardRoom. He was named the Gary Player Club Educator of the Year for 2012 and 2015 and received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021 by BoardRoom. He is also a co-author of McMahon’s Club Trends, a recognized industry benchmark on the trends and issues affecting private clubs.